When the Cult of Celebrity Devours Meaningful History

Katharine Houghton Hepburn helped American women secure the vote and reproductive freedom. Her daughter was a four-time Oscar winner. Chances are, you know about the actress, but not the activist.

By Victoria Martínez

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn (1878-1951) in an image captioned “Mrs. Thomas Hepburn of Hartford, Conn.” dated 1920. Part of the U.S. Library of Congress’ Records of the National Woman’s Party collection. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As a Gilded Age heiress, Katharine Martha Houghton could have frittered away her time on fashion and socializing. Instead, she attended both Bryn Mawr College and Radcliffe College, earning her Master’s degree in 1900. As the wife of a doctor, whom she married in 1904, she might have been contented as Mrs. Thomas Hepburn, complacent society hostess. But even as she bore and raised six children, she was an active and prominent activist for women’s rights on par with Carrie Chapman Catt, Margaret Sanger and Alice Paul.

Like her colleagues, Katharine Houghton Hepburn’s[1] résumé of activism is impressive. In the fight for American women’s suffrage, she co-founded the Hartford (Connecticut) Equal Franchise League, served as president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association, and was legislative chair of the National Women’s Party National Executive Committee. As an advocate of birth control, she co-founded with Margaret Sanger the American Birth Control League – which later became Planned Parenthood – in 1921, and was chair of the lobbying organization the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control.

For both causes, she wrote, lectured, petitioned and lobbied at both the local and national level. She, along with other militant suffragists, picketed the White House during the term of President Woodrow Wilson. She penned editorials and pamphlets, appeared before legislators and government committees, confronted and debated with her opponents, and delivered high-profile speeches on controversial subjects, all while barely flinching at the backlash her activities wrought.

She also fought on behalf of other causes, including for women’s right to serve on a jury (which was still restricted for many years after women won the right to vote), for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and even against a woman’s death sentence. In working with all of these causes, her guiding principle seemed to be the pursuit of what she once described as “a morality based on intelligence and ideas, not on fear.”[2]

Suffragists like Katharine Houghton Hepburn picket the White House of President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Part of the U.S. Library of Congress’ Records of the National Woman’s Party collection. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Her active and central role in the American suffrage and birth control movements make Katharine Houghton Hepburn as significant – and even potentially controversial – a historical figure as Alice Paul and Margaret Sanger. But unlike Paul and Sanger, on whom there is a body of printed work, there is next to nothing written about Houghton Hepburn. Though her life was dedicated to improving society and empowering women in the United States, her legacy has been subsumed under and, arguably, obscured by the celebrity of her daughter, American actress Katharine Hepburn.[3]

Not one single book has been solely devoted to her life of dedicated social activism and significant contributions to society. In contrast, hundreds of books have been written about her daughter, who – though a talented actress – did little more than entertain the masses. Though Houghton Hepburn is included in many of the books on her daughter, it is always in the “supporting role” of mother. This is hardly a satisfactory tribute to and accounting of her important role in American history.

It’s as if the cult of celebrity has commandeered her narrative to keep it from casting a shadow in the spotlight of the star.

Barely two months after winning her first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1934, Katharine Hepburn shared her own exasperation with this representation:

“I detest the newspapers’ reference to [my mother] as Katherine [sic] Hepburn’s mother. My mother is important. I am not.”[4]

It is a frustrating reality of history that so many women are still invisible, under-recognized and under-studied. Historical studies on women lag behind those of men[5], as does historical women’s representation in educational curriculum[6]. But even as this situation very slowly improves, it is clear that the public interest in women’s history has been so conditioned to trivialities and banalities that women like Houghton Hepburn are just not as “marketable” as women like Hepburn.

Of course, women like Houghton Hepburn have been written about, including her contemporaries and colleagues Margaret Sanger, Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. But the volumes written about these women do not compare to the quantity of works on women with celebrity in history. For example, a quick Amazon.com book search on Katharine Hepburn returns 375 hits. Margaret Sanger returns 165 hits, Carrie Chapman Catt less than 70, and Alice Paul 60 – still less collectively than Hepburn on her own. For Katharine Houghton Hepburn, there is nothing, save a cookbook that apparently contains a recipe of hers, and a few other random books that may or may not actually reference her in any meaningful way. Though not a scientific measurement, it is striking to see how much more ink is spilled on celebrity than on substance in the context of history.

Putting aside the maddening inferences that can be made from this, there is also the frustrating sense that it extends even to how women of greater historical significance are represented. Why, for instance, does Sanger have more than twice the number of hits than Catt and Paul? Arguably because she was far more unconventional and controversial than the other two women, and a sensational story will sell more books.

Likewise, why have Catt and Paul been written about more than other women who played equally important roles in history? Undoubtedly, there are a variety of reasons; however, in the limited space given to women in history, many have simply been crowded out of the discussion. Even as that space has expanded in recent years, many of the same women continue to be a central focus while countless others receive no attention at all.

This is most certainly the case with Katharine Houghton Hepburn, despite the fact that even a relatively cursory search for source materials reveals that a comprehensive study of her life is feasible. The question, unfortunately, may not be whether it can or should be done, but whether such a work would ever be as valued and appreciated as any of the hundreds of works about her daughter.


Featured image: Detail from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch (bet. 1490 to 1510). Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Much of the biographical background on Katharine Houghton Hepburn in this article has been sourced from the following sources: Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame and Connecticut History.

[2] From a speech delivered by Katharine Houghton Hepburn at a public meeting of the American Birth Control League held at New York’s Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1935, and reported by the Associated Press. See, for example, “Birth Control Urged for Those on Relief.” Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisc.) 4 Dec. 1935.

[3] Both women were called Katharine Houghton Hepburn, although the younger woman was known mainly as Katharine Hepburn. To avoid confusion, I refer here to the elder woman as Houghton Hepburn.

[4] “Miss Hepburn Pays Big Price for Film Fame.” The Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Penn.) 5 May 1934.

[5] For some examples and expressions of this, see: Popular history writing remains a male preserve, publishing study finds, Important historical women have been sidelined at Cambridge – it’s time for that to change, Women’s history month: Why the Royal Academy’s female founders were painted out of the picture.

[6] See, for instance, Where are the Women?, Where are the women in Sweden’s history books?, Call for More Females in the Curriculum.



  1. I’m glad to know about her! I also enjoyed the article you linked to about the two women among the 34 founders of the Royal Academy of Arts (founded 1768). I’d heard of Angelica Kauffman but not Mary Moser. So many great stories waiting to be told!

    Liked by 1 person

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